Nutrition and Brain Development in Utero Part 2


This post is the second part of my research into how nutrition affects prenatal development. I will go over my research on how nutrients affect prenatal brain development. During the prenatal and early postnatal stage, the brain is rapidly developing. Because of this, it is very vulnerable to nutrient deficiency while at the same time being at its most malleable state. It is easiest for the brain to repair itself in this stage, but its vulnerability still outweighs its malleability and as a result, negative effects from nutrient deficiencies often persist after the nutrient has been resupplied. The damage done due to malnutrition in prenatal brain development is often irreversible.



Certain nutrient deficiencies pose the greatest threat in fetal development. These include protein, iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, folate, vitamin A, choline, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. Iodine deficiency is the most common and most dangerous deficiency in prenatal development.  


Iodine Deficiency

  • The human body needs iodine to create thyroid hormones that control metabolism and for proper bone and neurological prenatal development. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy results in a multitude of neurological defects. Severe Iodine deficiency in prenatal development causes hypothyroxinemia which results in irreversible brain damage. Iodine deficiency results in neurological and/or hypothyroid cretinism, which is characterized by deaf-mutism, diplegia, squint, goitre, and mental retardation. 
  • A landmark trial was conducted in Papua New Guinea where endemic cretinism is extremely prevalent. The controlled trial was conducted with a population of approximately 8000 people. Alternating families were given saline (the control) and iodized oil injections. Over the next four years, data on the newly born infants was collected by a doctor who did not have any knowledge as to which families had received the iodine oil, making the trial double blind. Out of the 534 children born to mothers who had not received the iodine oil, 26 were born with endemic cretinism (4.87%). Of the 498 children born to mothers who had received iodine oil, only seven were born with endemic cretinism (1.41%). This suggests that severe iodine deficiency in prenatal development results in neurological damage during fetal development. In order to prevent neurological damage, iodine supplements should be given before conception. 

  • When I read Dr. Hetzel's reflection on his research entitled  "Commentary: From iodine deficiency in Papua New Guinea to a global programme of prevention." I found it very inspiring how he highlighted the effects of this trial on the people of New Guinea. The results they found in the study resulted in 120,000 people in Papua New Guinea being given injections of iodized oil and an iodized salt program being started to supply women with iodized oil so their babies can be born healthier. The results of this research has also brought attention from the international scientific community about the importance of iodine in the diet of pregnant mothers. The term Iodine deficiency disorder was coined as a result of this trial. Being very much a humanitarian myself, I have often wondered how my interest in science could be used to help people. This study has shown me an example of the positive effects that scientific studies can have on an international scale.



Important nutrients during late fetal and neonatal brain development

Nutrient       Brain requirement for the nutrientPredominant brain circuitry or process affected by deficiency
Protein-energyCell proliferation, cell differentiationGlobal
 Growth factor synthesis Hippocampus
IronMyelinWhite matter
 Monoamine synthesisStriatal-frontal
 Neuronal and glial energy metabolismHippocampal-frontal
ZincDNA synthesisAutonomic nervous system
 Neurotransmitter releaseHippocampus, cerebellum
CopperNeurotransmitter synthesis, neuronal and glial energy metabolism, antioxidant activityCerebellum
CholineNeurotransmitter synthesisGlobal
 DNA methylationHippocampus
 Myelin synthesisWhite matter
1 LC-PUFAs, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.



  • Hetzel, B. (2012). Commentary: From iodine deficiency in Papua New Guinea to a global programme of prevention. International Journal of Epidemiology, 595-598. doi:10.1093/ije/dys057. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from

  • Pharoah, P., Buttfield, I., & Hetzel, B. (1971). Neurological Damage To The Fetus Resulting From Severe Iodine Deficiency During Pregnancy. The Lancet,297(7694), 308-310. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(71)91040-3. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from

  • Zimmerman, M. (2009). Iodine deficiency in pregnancy and the effects of maternal iodine supplementation on the offspring: A review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition®,89(2). doi:10.3945/​ajcn.2008.26811C. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from

  • Georgieff, M. (2007). Nutrition and the developing brain: Nutrient priorities and measurement. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,85. Retrieved October 3, 2015, from Nutrition and the developing brain: nutrient priorities and measurement

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Thanks, Grace! That's actually the direction I'm planning on heading with my research; this is just kind of my base of knowledge to build upon. I'm really interested in seeing how much learning ability is affected by nutrition. I like that you brought up the nature vs. nurture argument, maybe I'll do some research into that as well. I'm also really interested in looking at the food our cafeteria and other cafeterias provide and how they measure up to the recommended nutrient intake for teenagers and how that could possibly be affecting our brains and learning ability.

You have a lot of solid examples of brain deficiency that can result from undernourishment such as "neurological and hypothyroid cretinism."


I was wondering, if you could possibly dig deeper. Can, lets say, intelligence be malleable by a change in nutrition? This could tie really nicely into the question "what makes some students smarter than others?" I'm sure a lot of it is genetic or learned, but if nutrition can cause such serious cognitive problems, it's likely to also be able to alter intelligence.


Sorta reminded me of what we were talking about the other day. If the food in our school, in all schools for that matter, had a relatively fixed amount of nutrients in every meal, would there be a change in grade averages..? 

Thanks, that's a great question, Paige. It is recommended that pregnant women receive 220 micrograms of iodine a day,and 290 mcg if they are breastfeeding. Most table salt nowadays is iodized and iodine can also be found in foods such as cod and yogurt, so supplements are not needed for many people as a sufficient amount of iodine can be provided from a healthy diet. However, certain areas have endemic iodine deficiency as a result of low iodine levels in the soil of the region. In these areas, like in Papua New Guinea, programs have been set up to provide iodized salt to communities that cannot easily obtain it.  The safe upper limit of iodine intake is 1100 mcg/day. Exceeding this limit can result in abdominal pain, coughing, delirium. diarrhea, fever, gum and tooth soreness, loss of appetite, metallic taste in mouth, mouth and throat pain and burning, no urine output, rash, salivation, seizures, shock, shortness of breath, stupor, thirst, and vomiting.